A problem 70 years in the making

Actually, it is a host of problems that started off with one problem: Development astigmatism, myopia and hyperopia. I am being kind here. What I just said could be termed “Development Aggression” or “Development Terrorism” which are harsher, starker and truer phrases that can be used to describe what is happening. Very well know as “facts” these days but considered “jokes” those days, were the issues highlighted as far back as 1986 by Lewis in “Sri Lanka’s Mahaweli Scheme: The damnation of paradise” that includes the loss of biodiversity, habitats, involuntary resettlement and/or migration of humans and animals, changes to weather patterns, the negative rise of local water tables and the increase in agro-toxin usage.


Back in the day, it was this very same mega project that created the first environment action groups in Sri Lanka such as OSLEN (Organization for the Safety of Life and Environment) which was the predecessor organization of the Green Movement among many others. The warnings sounded by those fledgling attempts have become a vociferous cacophony now with everyone and their pet parakeet fighting each other to jump on the environment band wagon.”


The old proposal for the victoria dam

The old proposal for the victoria dam. The Mahaweli Scheme was the reason why environment movements began in Sri Lanka.

The Greens, always two steps ahead of most and three times sharper have two things going for them that are rare. One is the ability to see beyond the obvious. The other is to recognize that IPLCs know far more about far more than they ever will.


We already knew that the potpourri of problems besetting our rivers at their sources are interconnected. We already knew that if these were to be solved, then that had to come from the people most affected by the mood swings and terrain swings of a given ecological system. Those people are not environmental protectionists, they are not researchers, they are not policy makers. They are the peoples living in these areas.


We already knew that issues highlighted by the likes of Lewis 40 years ago are now multiplied to the nth degree through rapid increases in population, more aggressive development, less tolerant and less human-centric laws and of course the ultimate multiplier – climate.


We knew (for example) that the gross storage capacity of 722,000,000 m3 of the Victoria dam is now cut by a full, eye-popping third due to siltation. We already knew that ignoring catchment management in lieu of the so-called “protected area management” (read: fence the bloody thing and let only those who are sweet to us enter) has resulted in an unseen and unheard environment disaster in loss of net water availability that has affected everything and everyone for miles and miles.


The Mahaweli runs dry

The Mahaweli runs dry. In many instances, the death of a river downstream is seen by the development aggression upstream.

We knew that water must be the start-all and end-all of any realistic treatment of environment issues in the areas that we were focusing on. We also knew that globally, there is a whopping 53% loss of water in still-water bodies such as reservoirs and that the same is true in Sri Lanka as well. Take that statistic under advisement and consider this: Only 3% of the surface is covered by lakes across the world but they hold 90% of liquid surface freshwater that are essential sources for drinking water, irrigation and power while providing habitat for plants and animals. That’s a bit of a shocker isn’t it?


Yet, we know that science is a limited and limiting tool and we are not subscribers to exclusive faith in desk study. We are not armchair detectives by any means. So, we knew better than to come to erroneous conclusions about the ways and wiles of life and environment without getting the real deal from the people involved.


So, with SAFER, as part of our inception study, we gathered key representatives of the communities from separate segments of the VRR and KCF. The first was at the source of the Victoria dam which is the first of all disasters in the area. The second was the community living along the trace of the VRR/Avenue of Kings (Raja Weediya) and the third were the downstream Adivasi indigenous communities living in the lower areas into which the Mahaweli (or whatever is left of it after its mangled and tortured journey across three dams and six reservoirs) flows.


We used the SCORECARD (Strategic Commons Organization, Regeneration and Enhancement: Community Analysis of Realities and Dynamics) we developed under COLIBRI for our purposes. A bit unfortunately perhaps, the resource persons who were seconded into the effort had gotten the whole idea wrong, or, perhaps, had no idea at all, on the differences between SCORE and other ways of acquiring community knowledge and degraded the exercise into a glorified hybrid of KPIs and PRAs. Not good. Not measurable. No importance to science but it did cover the NGO ground better than most. Oh well. The trials and travails of data acquisition *heh*


The results nevertheless, were, as always, revealing.


Vedda community

Three generations of the Vedda Community. Second from left,, Bandiya the Chieftain of the Henanigala group. On his left, Indika, the modernized version of the Veddas who was steeped in Adivasi lore. On the right mid-aged Vedda women who were suffering from microfinance b.s.

The Vedda communities were the most insightful. They said that the problem did not start with the Mahaweli although it was the most impactful. They said the issue commenced with settlement back in the 1940s. Wow! Indeed. That was when the idea of “resettlement and damage by the state for more votes first commenced!” They revealed the horrors visited upon them by their disenfranchisement from their traditional lands by that same madness and their subsequent fall with this: “කබල් පොජ්ජෙන් ගිනි පොජ්ජට මංගච්ච” (We have fallen out of the frying pan into the fire) and this: “අපේ ඇත්තෝ දැන් කතා දාන්නේ දියවැඩිය පොජ්ජ, හර්දාබාධ පොජ්ජ, වකුගඩු අබාධ පොජ්ජ” (Our peoples now speak only of diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease). Their women spoke of the sleepless nights they had to spend because of microfinance companies who had neither the right not any business to screw with Adivasi communities because that was a violation of UN conventions on Indigenous Peoples.


The peoples on the Hulu Ganga summed their problems up succinctly “The mist is gone”. It was a brilliant catchall of the damage of small-hydro plants, water bottling factories, the Victoria dam and of course, their ququalified claims that was the ultimate proof of our own conclusions “The impact of community anthropogenic activities in the areas is marginal”.


The people of the VRR central areas: “When we want to cut a tree we grew in our own gardens, we have to wait a year to get approval from the DWLC. So, who cares, they don’t. We simply walked into the jungle and cut down two of the same trees to build our homes”. Twice the damage because the so-called protectors were clueless. So, all that the community was saying was  “Fuck the DWLC. They are a bunch of jokers. They are the cause of our illegal activities”. On the human-wildlife conflict that has everyone up in some kinda arms these days, well, their take was revealing “we cannot go to a funeral or a wedding as a family anymore. We have to leave someone behind to protect our small plot crops”. The message was simple: It was not the yield that they lost that was the problem. The torque macaque was actually destroying their ways of life and putting unmanageable social pressure on them.


The overarching conclusion we got from them was that their battle with authorities, regulators and idiot policies and laws were a) impossible to resolve through legislative systems and b) destroyed their own community customs and ways of life. This was a resounding affirmation of our own observations on these matters that we presented during the kick-off.


We have our work in the KCF-VRR cut out for us. LETS GO!


We kick SAFER off and almost get kicked in the teeth in the field

Well now. Was this an inauspicious start or what? Let me explain.


We had our strategy down pat and aired to all at the kick-off meet held in March. By that time, I had also gone some ways into the desk study of the terrain. However, as with all our projects, Suranjan and I do an initial reccy of the terrain before we start talking turkey and doing that there turkey to the finest level of haut cuisine imaginable.


Reconnaissance visit to the VRR

Suranjan shares his wealth of knowledge on the terrain

It is mandatory for the two of us because it is during those hours and hours of travel that Sura talks almost incessantly, pouring forth that incredible knowledge of the country, its history and its kaleidoscopic variety of people, places, things and creatures that no one else has even an inkling of. I can read a hundred papers in a week (which I actually do but it is zip compared to the knowledge I get on these journeys of ours). His is citizen science blended with political and social sense. Mine is mainstream science blended with art and heart. To put it as mildly as possible? We meld. We mesh. We arrive in third spaces that neither of us thought we could get to when we start an exercise of this nature. Armed with a few google map printouts (for my benefit) and our trusted field kits that included my ever present bottle of local booze (I never take imports on these journeys), we did the route that straddles the southern border of the VRR sanctuary.


VRR – Victoria-Randenigala-Rantambe. Three mega dams. Dams that have damned my nation in no small measure.


Yet, friends, it was a strangely nostalgic journey for me. One of clear and glad memories clashing with dark current conflicts.


You see, as an 18 year old, my first job was on the Maduru-Oya dam when it was being built. I shucked concrete by the cubic meter from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and sometimes all the way to 6 a.m. while also being a technician at the contractor’s (FAFJ’s) soil testing lab. I know forever the sound of the wind howling on top of a half built mega-structure at 2 am. I still remember what it felt like to be taught to hunt and fish by Paul Grigg (a Baticaloa Burgher). I know what it felt like to hobnob with the Adivasi community and have them give me my first joint. My uncle was the chief engineer on the Randenigala dam as well as the Maduru-Oya dam when those two were built. My father was on the high-level negotiating team talking to the British venture BBN who built the Victoria dam and the Swedish construction giant Skanska who built the Kotmale dam. Kid though I was, I was up-close and personal with the things I had a hand in building (tiny though my contribution was). Things that I am fighting against today so, 40 years on, almost to the day, this specific journey among many such Suranjan and I have taken over the years was…how to put it…surreal… to say the least.


As Suranjan pointed out, the reservoirs themselves are pretty much silted up. When there are torrential rains, they fill up quickly. Too quickly. What happens? In order to protect their damned dams, the engineers must open the sluices. Then the rain stops. All that water is gone for good and what remains evaporates quickly. Too quickly. This time because of the temperature rise in the area due to global warming. That double whammy bodes no good for water management now, does it? Some of that silting is because people has started cultivating on the very edge of the reservoirs when their water levels go down to take advantage of the richness of the soil. When they are done, the soil is loose and slides into the water, making a mockery of the silt traps because you cannot silt trap the whole water body. Then there was the limestone. The tremors. The earth slips. The component deaths of river segments. The disenfranchised IPLCs. The misguided policing against laws no one wants or believe in anymore.



Reconnaissance visit to the VRR

The signboard warns people to think twice before buying land in the areas because most of it is “conservation land”. The notice will soon be covered by the invasive plant Lantana growing in front of it while the ground will soon be covered by garbage. Conservation? Oh purleez!

All of that took us maybe seven hours. Seven hours of tutoring for me that I could not have obtained from 10 years of mainstream research. Right up to about 5 kilometres from the Randenigala dam on the absolutely gorgeous Raja Veediya (Avenue of Kings). It was 11.30 a.m. It was then that Sura’s ever faithful PRADO decided to give up the ghost. Right in the middle of elephant infested jungle without a soul in sight for miles around.


Of all of the vehicles that zoomed by us that day, the only ones to stop were… of all people…the drivers of massive tipper trucks used for mining sand from the Mahaweli river. Our worst enemy at the operational level perhaps, but they stopped. They’ve been there. They knew the dangers we faced. The elephants in that area are not half-tamed tourist teasers but the real deal. They will shoot (on in this case, kick, overturn and trample) before they ask any questions. We had a kid with us. A youngling we were training. We had to get her to safety first so I had the hard task of leaving Sura behind and traveling 78 Kilometres in a Tuk. Those great good Samaritans, the tipper truckers got the mechanics from Mahiyangana and the vehicle movers. They had other things to do but repeatedly called in to check if Sura was ok and getting the help he needed. He finally gets to Hettipola at 10 p.m. after having had to load the SUV on to a truck and have it hauled to Mahiyanganaya. It took us the rest of our planned journey to get the vehicle fixed because the parts had to be brought up from Colombo.


So much for that. But that unanticipated blow hurt. I really needed a lot more “data upstreaming” from Sura but it was not to be. It was a harsh testament of the reality of our work but this had never happened to us before. We had never had to basically abandon a task in the field for any reason whatsoever. I guess there is always a first time for everything as they say.


Yet, we made good friends. The blokes operating those tippers for example. They had no big ideas of environment damage or what have you. They were doing a hard job in a dangerous place. They looked out for one another and that generosity was extended to us. Gratis. The Tuk driver was another. He was a wealth of knowledge and didn’t mind taking me (and the kid) here and there to take videos and photos even as I was taking her to safety.


We are the Greens. Those who help us are helped by us a thousand fold. Even if that help has to come out of our own pockets. This reduces in action, to the management of issues in micro-geographies with individuals. Not, and repeat, NOT! macro ideas of law and legislation. How easy is it to persecute and hound a tipper driver? A substance hunter? A cardamom picker? Not hard at all. But look at all of the “campaigns” of mad NGOs across the world? They will do exactly that and demean themselves and insult their target communities without a care in the world. They only care about the next dollar regardless of the astigmatism of those that deliver that dollar or the myopia of those that use that dollar.


Reconnaissance visit to the VRR on SAFER

Fractured land bordering the reservoir spills soil into it that will eventually end up as sediment that will finally silt over the entire water body.

People such as those that helped us? They are human. Not project participants or budget lines. We will reciprocate during SAFER because they have come through for the Greens when our chips were down. When our cards showed only a pair.


All, however, is not lost. The start was affirmed, the chart was clarified, the part we must play in a greater order of men and matters, women and worries, youth and yowls, kids and kindness, is now known (That is a direct translation of Adivasi wisdom from Papua New Guinea).


As with all our projects that start with good omens or bad, right thinking or mad, joyous anticipation or sad?


We will not win for ourselves anything. Why? Because if we win then our communities will lose.If we win anything at all it will be that we win the effort – not its reward. That goes to the communities.


Therefore, let it be that our beneficiaries win at our cost. With this exercise that is the given. As I told Malvika during the design phase before even submitting the proposal “I have never lost a call I believed in”.


The Greens have never lost an action they believed in either.

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